Here’s an extract from Open to all, how youth hostels changed the world.
At 9am on a Sunday morning in February 1983 senior people from the Youth Hostels Association of England and Wales gathered at the youth hostel in Holland Park. Set back from Kensington High Street where the open spaces of the park give way to woodland, the Queen had opened the youth hostel in memory of her father in 1959. It was a curious mix of styles, with a Jacobean wing hard against a modern box of concrete and glass. The lines of the buildings set together starkly highlighted the problems facing youth hostels. Like the buildings, old ideas were struggling against sharp edged, brightly lit, modern ways.
Former chairman, John Parfitt, at that early Sunday morning meeting had known since the late sixties only a fractional change in leisure tastes would leave youth hostels high and dry. But he had not seen that fractional change arriving at the same time as rising costs, rising prices, and an economic downturn.
A crisis had engulfed youth hostels. On the back of steady growth suddenly changed economic fortunes had swept down on them. That others faced worse difficulties, in recession hit Britain in the early eighties, was no consolation to him.
Youth hostels had made many of the problems themselves and they were high and dry before anyone knew what had happened. In two years, numbers staying had tumbled by 14%. For youth hostels, on tight margins, the change was catastrophic. As the numbers staying collapsed, debts rose and two regional groups failed.
From 1977 the regions had been on a spree of opening new youth hostels. More than 20 youth hostels had opened, including a new London hostel at Hampstead Heath and a brand new purpose-built hostel at Broad Haven in Pembrokeshire. The last ones were nearing completion just as the crisis hit, as the Conservative government elected in 1979, raised interest rates, hiked taxes, and cut spending, driving down demand and increasing unemployment. The economy shrank and unemployment more than doubled. The recession hit young people particularly badly.
Overnight stays slipped at most youth hostels in 1980 but not as hard as they might have done. A new youth hostel in London, at Hampstead Heath, ensured that overnights for the whole year were up. The following year, London could not rescue anyone. In two years, the total numbers staying in youth hostels fell by 14%. Membership numbers fell 17% from their peak of 1980. The collapse was even more serious in younger age groups, with the number of members aged 16 – 21, down 19%. The number of members under 16 was down by more than a quarter.
At the same time as the crisis broke, youth hostels had to finance the previous year’s wage award of 32.5%, deal with inflation at 20%, and pay for a new computerised membership system. In 1980 expenditure at youth hostels shot up by almost one million, from £2,505,792 to £3,303,680. The following year youth hostels cost a half million more to run. Official interest rates went to 15% in 1981.
As problems mounted, tensions grew. The National Executive Committee (NEC) disagreed with National Council. After Council decided youth hostels should charge for car parking, NEC disregarded that clear direction and abolished charges. Council reminded NEC that it did not have power to overturn decisions made by Council. John Parfitt retorted “to wait before taking a decision just to meet a technical requirement was pedantic and one did not normally observe pedantic things in time of crisis.”
Adding to the strain, youth hostel finances were complex. Regional groups ran youth hostels and paid money to national funds. Money from national funds could then be used to finance big projects and capital investment in the regions. But the regions were autonomous. When a national committee said no, a region could still go ahead with a project, then run out of money, and expect national aid. Winter cash flow problems multiplied. Regional groups ran out of money just when they needed to pay for increased wages and investment.
In the midst of the issues, Parfitt and senior colleagues gathered at Holland Park, to make sense of what was happening and to find a way out of the mess in which they were landed, if they could. Those at the meeting included members of the management committee, a regional chairwoman, the chair of the education committee, and three well respected youth hostel wardens. David Kingsley, a friend and colleague of YHA Vice President, Lord Lovell Davis, also came to the meeting. In the sixties, Kingsley, Lovell-Davis and Denis Lyons had been known as the three wise men, an unpaid triumvirate advising then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. They were the first spin doctors, with backgrounds in advertising, public relations and business. They had been helping Wilson modernise what he called the ‘outdated penny farthing machinery’ of the Labour Party.
Youth hostels faced a similar challenge, their ideas out of date and misunderstood. The machinery driving them, through committees and long meetings, sometimes ending after midnight, seemed as unfit for the times as the Labour Party’s.
Parfitt had always believed that youth hostels needed to modernise, make profits and attract a new generation of young people. He was a no nonsense, plain speaking man. “Profit may seem sordid to some people, it just seems like sensible housekeeping to me.” He had a remarkable gift for expounding a case, combining “an ice cold logic with a white hot passion” for the things he believed were right.
At Holland Park, that Sunday in February, he presented to colleagues the results of his latest research, carried out by Mass Observation, the research agency of which he was managing director. What they had discovered would prompt youth hostels to undo their foundations and fundamentally unravel what they had become over more than 50 years.